To An American Stranger, By Way of An Answer

by Cybonn Ang

My roots are in Manila — that’s above Bali and   

to the right of Bangkok. You might know the area. 

   

My grandmother was a feisty Tagala.   

Five hundred years after the fact—   

and to a troop of kids wearing jeans—   

she still told of her great grandfather’s great  

grandfather who, wearing the scarlet cloth around 

his gold-studded, gloriously brown skin,   

threw a spear into a pale, young conquistador,   

killing him. So I will never say  ‘What do you mean?’—  

taking offense— when you ask me  

‘No, I mean, where are you really from?’ 

as if I were a charming chanterelle,  

to the shame of my grandmother who lived   

through the fall of Corregidor, and slept   

in a cave during the war.   

 

Yes, my English is surprisingly good.  

Our babies train for TOEFL straight  

from the womb, so they can fly away 

and feed the motherland. 

A is for the Apple that never grew in our yard. 

B is for Baby blue-eyed.  

For parties, I was taught a trick:  

how to read Jane running after Dick.   

‘Look Jane look.’ I looked at Jane, 

mesmerised by her blonde curls.

Everything in her life looked golden. 

 

No, I am not a maid nor a nurse.

But I know a mother who sings

at night to a foreign child,

while her own lie milkless, 

sleepless at home. She was 

a schoolteacher, a city scholar, 

still she faced a choice: dollar or peso.

The exchange rate was always

high for heroes. But through

the veinof our women

flow the blood of Tandang Sora. 

We do what we have to do, we soar.   

 

Yes, families live under bridges,   

and children run naked 

begging for change— 

the coin, not the concept—

for they are too young to know.  

But no, we are not all boondocks and beggars.   

There are proper houses with garages   

and swimming pools and gates.

There are high-rises and trains.   

And while land is measured by hectares  

for rice and tobacco and sugar cane,    

in the cities are malls larger than the Vatican, 

and everyone who has money

carries a Vuitton and eats Italian. 

 

Yes, our poor always die poor

and our rich are so eternally. 

But we love kissing the Archbishop’s ring, 

and we walk the entire length

of the church on our knees

for some— some fortunes can swing.

A President can turn prisoner mid-term.

An orphan can grow into tycoon,

all of a sudden like a bonsai

breaking out into a tree.  

All the better if he already has

Chinese name. It reads better 

across the ocean. 

 

Yes, I am Asian. 

(No, I am not Latina. It is after all in Asia.)

(No, I am not good at math.) 

People in a half-part of Turkey are Asians   

as well. Even Russians are Asians. 

You see, they lumped us all together

when white exploration was young,

and sailorswere oppressed

by the idea of the foreign.   

 

So if you’d like to be a better

cartographer than your father   

and more accurately chart

the trenches of my heart, 

plot my intimate inland tales, 

follow the river of my blood,

trace out the Sierra Cordillera

from where I carved my face 

You should ask me questions.  

You should ask. 

 

 

Image: Manila, Philippine Islands: A fair maiden of Manila. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

 

About the Author

Cybonn Ang

Cybonn Ang is a Filipino-New Zealand writer currently based in Montreal. Her work has appeared in Naugatuck River Review, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, the Philippines Graphic Magazine and is forthcoming in an anthology called New Asian Voices from Auckland University Press. She is currently at work on her first novel.  

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